Dr. Ignacio Chapela
Speaking at the Berkeley City Council Chambers
Biotech: Farmers' Rights, and the University-Industrial Partnership Monday, 14oct02
More on Dr. Ignacio Chapela
an audio CD of Dr. Chapela's lecture.
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Dr. Ignacio Chapela, Professor of Microbial Ecology at UC Berkeley
Dona Spring, Berkeley City Councilwoman
This event was organized by Leuren Moret and Paul Goettlich. Because of a last-minute schedule change, Percy Schmeiser was unable to be present. In lieu of his absence, the 26 min. video, Heartbreak In the Heartland: The True Cost of Genetically Engineered Crops was shown. The text of the video is presently available in three other languages: Spanish, French (Québec), and Mandarin Chinese. Other translations that are in the works are: Arabic, Czech, French (Paris), Hindi, Tamil, Norwegian, kiSwahili, isiZulu; SeSotaho, Siswati, Portuguese, and Polish.
On Thursday, 17 October 2002, Percy spoke at a fundraiser for him at the Greenpeace office in San Francisco, where about 100 people were present. From there he attended a weekend of engagements at the Bioengineers conference in Marin. Shortly thereafter, he made a two-week tour of South America. And then on to Mexico. He doesn't stop because he knows that he's right. And he has hundreds, or possibly thousands of supporters—both financial and moral. In order for Monsanto to influence people to do their bidding, they must spend millions of dollars constantly. It would be wonderful if they would do some good for us all with those millions of dollars, instead of attempting to enslave us all.
The following articles were included in the press kit: Mark Shapiro. Sowing Disaster? The Nation 10oct02; David Schubert. A Different Perspective on GM Food, Nature Biotechnology Oct02; Barry Commoner. Unraveling The DNA Myth: The spurious foundation of genetic engineering. Harper's Magazine Feb02; Charles Benbrook. Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998. Ag BioTech InfoNet 13jul99; Ignacio Chapela. Apocalypse Now? Lose text of presentation at University of California, Berkeley.
Also read the text of Dr. Chapela's interviewed by Michael Olson SATURDAY FOOD CHAIN Radio Show 9feb02
It's so difficult to speak after seeing Percy Schmeiser, and the Nelson family, and the reality of farmers in the U.S. I have the same type of feeling that I get when I also see farmers back in Mexico. I'm originally Mexican. I've worked for many years with indigenous communities in the State of Oaxaca—a very specific group of people. And I have to say that it's a similar type of feeling that I get after hearing them that I feel I don't have anything to say, because that's really where the reality of what's happening is expressed—in the field, and the plants—and I don't think there was any hyperbole and what Percy was saying about this being a very radical change. What Erwin Chargoff was quoted as saying also was that we are really changing historically—not only historically but evolutionarily—the face of the biosphere, the face of the earth. We are really changing evolution as we speak.
It's a really important to time we are living in. What I felt that I could do here was to try and bring it home, that we are at the epicenter of that change. That here, specifically in this place, in Berkeley and the Bay Area, we have been living and generating the changes that are now rippling through the biosphere—these changes that, I think, will be with us and will be with future generations longer than nuclear manipulations of the atmosphere. And it's something that's very difficult to deal with. It's easy to dismiss because it's something you don't see. For nuclear pollution, you can bring a reporter with a camera, and you can take pictures of trees dying, and calves with more or less than four legs, and things like that. It's very apparent that we're doing something here. But with the manipulation of the genetic makeup of life, it's something that's very difficult to follow, very difficult to see. There is no way of following it.
I come to it as a microbial ecologist, as somebody who has trained and has focused on trying to understand that world of the unseen. And this is really where the changes are happening. Expecting to see calves with three legs and so on from the manipulations that are happening now would be silly. And that's probably why many people are derided by playing up the Frankenfood card. Because it's true, we are not seeing anything like that happening in the environment. But that doesn't mean that there aren't very radical changes afoot. The changes that we're introducing don't have a precedent in evolutionary history. And we really don't know what were doing. We don't even know what we're tampering with.
A very important concept that Paul Goettlich referred to, the concept of familiarity. We are told that because nobody's dying, because nobody's falling dead dead or because corn plants continue to look like corn plants, that we are familiar with these manipulations, with these changes, [and] that what we're doing is substantially equivalent. These are two very important words—substantial equivalence—they are substantially equivalent to what we've always had before. And I totally disagree with that. The reason why, so far, we have not seen [and don't see] anything is because we have a whole army of people making sure that we don't see those changes happening. [They make] sure that a corn plants that gets manipulated through transgenic manipulation continues to look like a corn plant.
Those are the crop breeders—people who have been trained to weed out, what a corn breeder referred to once in a conversation, as the "little monsters." We are creating little monsters back in the lab. And then we have this huge screen of plant breeders who will select those and let through the ones that will actually, in the field, look, behave, taste, and so on, like corn. So it's not surprising that we would be familiar with those corn plants because they have been selected from the thousands and millions of manipulations behind the screen, to look and behave like normal corn, normal cows, normal whatever it is we're doing.
But, unfortunately, we don't have that army of people, and we don't have that knowledge to be able to select things like salmon, poplar trees, moths and flies, that we are manipulating. And we are generating the same type of diversity back there without having the screen of breeders to tell us what were actually putting out into the environment. We're just releasing everything.
And in the case of salmon, poplar trees, and flies, it's still possible to think that you could go out and find those flies that went loose doing something unexpected. Then what happens when you go to the world of microbes? Which is what I work with. It's something that represents 98 percent—95 percent, if you want to be generous to the big bugs—98 percent of living world.
What happens when you go to that world that we having scratched the surface of, not even seen, let alone name, let alone know, what their biology is? I believe that is where the most important, the most radical transformations are happening. And because the world is connected through DNA, and as much more connected now because we have figured out ways of transgressing the barriers that used to keep groups separate. Now the world is a lot more connected. And because that world is connected, I really believe that those changes are going to come back. Eventually [the changes] will come back home to roost, and we'll start seeing those transformations coming back into the world that we care for, the world that we see.
So, how do we deal with radical transformations in a world that we cannot see that will eventually, sooner or later, come back to the world that we can see. It's a very serious, difficult question, that is easy to dismiss, because I'm sure that I won't have to deal with it, personally. Well, almost sure. But, I'm not sure that my daughter will not have to deal with it, and her descendants will not have to deal with it. And then it becomes a question of choices; whether we are willing to just put that the onus on future generations, on other countries, which is another very important thing to keep in mind. We're doing transformations here that have consequences throughout the world, where people might not want them, let alone be aware of what manipulations are. And, if we want those transformations, are we willing to just leave the responsibility of following up to them? And why?
Do we want to simply to pass that on to them? Or are we really going to take that responsibility? It's the same type of problems that we confront with pollution, with just chemical pollution, that we're more used to thinking of. Right now, I'm not going to keel over and die. I'm not going to be poisoned right now. Let's leave this problem for the future. And, then the problem becomes an opportunity. Solving that problem becomes a business opportunity—a call for a new technological fix for a technological problem.
"If we start asking the
And that's pretty much, I think, what we have bought into. This is something that I believe we in the northern hemisphere, specifically Europe and the United States and Canada, bought into in the late '70s, beginning of the '80s. And I think there's a very interesting historical trait to be followed, that indicates that were very clear, conscious decisions to look the other way.
The concept of familiarity—the concept of substantial equivalence—really amounts, in my mind, to a very antiscientific principle of not looking. Let's assume that these things, which we know are being produced through technologies that we never had access to before, are familiar. Let's assume that they are not different. So, in a very real way, this is a mandate to not look. And I think there's a very historical trait that says, this decision was taken back then as a very good and very reasonable policy decision, a very central policy decision, both in Europe and the US.
Follow this logic. We have been seeing an enormous economic development of the world, especially of Europe and the US, based on technological development. And we were talking, at that time, about computers, about information technology, and so on. But we know that those technologies and the economic edge that they provide are going to go abroad. They're going to follow lower wages and and lower environmental standards. So sooner or later will see them go away. How are we going to replace them? This is going to come, maybe in the '90s, maybe in the new century. How are we going to replace them?
So that assumption is actually a really good one and it's proven true. It's proven right. We've lost that economic edge. The basis of the precisely the well-being of this whole area, Silicon Valley, and the whole state of California went away. And we were slated to bring onboard another technological development that would keep our competitive edge, and would keep our nation, and supposedly, the whole world going.
Back in the late '70s, beginning of the '80s, central governments were convinced by a very specific group of people, that that technology had to be this technological manipulation of life. They really were convinced about that. And they said, "OK, if we start asking the relevant questions about risk, about safety, about precaution, then we're never going to get there. We're never going to be ready when we need this technology. So let's look the other way. Let's look away from it. Let's not ask the relevant questions."
And that's precisely what we had as a mandate back in the beginning of the '80s, which, if you want, you might take as a very reasonable policy decision. "Let's take this risk, and whatever comes will be a business opportunity. Will be ahead anyway. So, if this problem crops up back in Mexico, or it crops up back in Indonesia, we will have the edge to provide technology to solve the problem. So, it's a pretty good idea."
The question now is, 25 years down the line, do we still continue to make the same decision? Do we still continue to buy into it? And, more importantly, did the products of this technology actually deliver the big promise that central governments were pushing? And I think the answer also was quoted in that really interesting video [Heartbreak In the Heartland]. The answer is no.
of the highly toxic herbicides
There actually is no clear benefit to the deployment of the technologies as we know them. There's nothing that I know of the horizon or in the pipeline that will change this state of affairs. The products out there that reduce, to some extent, the use of chemicals in the environment are being defeated, basically, by themselves. And there were reports this year broadcast by the BBC, by investigative reporting, which is hard to do because the whole thing is slanted against it. There were reports that favor recite resistant crops had, this year, to be sprayed with Roundup plus atrazine. They're having to mix old chemicals that were already phased out. [Old chemicals] are having a comeback to deal with the problems generated by the technology itself.
Chemical use has not really been improved. Yield has not been improved at all. And there is a very important problem that that the equality of these products—the locus of benefit and cost, or benefit and risk, the social loci of application of cost and benefit—have been even further polarized. So that the benefit is accruing in a very different place, for very different people than the costs and the risks are.
What we are seeing right now is that we are asking African countries to take on the risk for the technologies* that we produced so that we can continue to milk out the profit. And that, I think is just as important as the actual physical nature of whether we have a benefit or not from these technologies.
* note reference to Zambia refusing to take GM corn as food aid
I asked the question again. 25 years down the line, in the face of basically no benefit from them, and no foreseeable benefit in the future, does is still makes sense to continue going into the assumption that we want to going to this risks as a matter of central policy? And I think the answer is no.
I think all stop there. I just wanted to introduce this as a question. I would like to be led by whatever you people would like to talk about. Paul, go.
Would you tell us about your finding in Mexico of the corn and your experience with the scientific paper in the journal Nature?
[ Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Nature v.414, 541-543 29nov01]
What really happened with Nature? We're not clear on that.
Nobody really knows what really happened with Nature.
I'm really glad to see that David Quist is here, who is the first author on that paper. So, I hope, David, that you help me out with whatever memory slips I have.
The story, as I see it, and of course there are 20 stories around this incident, is as follows.
As a microbial ecologist—I think I gave a background for why I would be interested in a question like this—I was very interested in seeing what happens when I introduce this piece of DNA that comes from a bacterium or a fish, or whatever, into a plant. And I continued to be very interested in following this as if it were a little microbe moving in the environment—the new microbe that wasn't there before. Follow it in see where it goes. I was interested in asking that question.
At that time, I was serving on a committee for the National Academy of Sciences looking at the environmental impacts of transgenic crops. And I asked this question; I said, "couldn't we possibly look at the consequences beyond the crop that we are putting here in the ground? What happens around the agricultural field? And the answer that I received very quickly from the USDA representative was, "No, this committee is not supposed to be looking at those questions. Those questions have been visited before. These manipulations will not move significantly out from the boundaries of the field."
Another very interesting question that I had for myself, beyond the substantial equivalence question, which also was—we were denied the opportunity of visiting that question—what happens when you operate in a regulatory system which is not as robust, I assumed, as the U.S. system is, if you want. The U.S. system, by comparison with other places, is more or less regulated, is more or less well policed. But what happens when these products are deployed, which they will be? If we really get away with it, they will be deployed throughout the world. What happens in the different regulatory system? Which was perfectly pertinent to the committee's work. That didn't lead anywhere either.
At that point, we were discussing with David, and we said, "Sooner or later were going to see these pieces of DNA—these transgenic constructs—moving out of the agricultural field where they were planted, moving out of the neighboring field of, and this case corn, but going well beyond that. And there are places where this is particularly worrisome—the places where the crops, corn, or any other crop actually were domesticated, and the places where these crops have been diversified. Because these places, geographically, represent the information source, if you want to put it that way, the databank for the world.
We continue to be dependent on the centers of diversification of our crops to go back, take genetic material out of those, and put it into our commercial lines. So our commercial agricultural or even our industrial agriculture depends really vitally on these centers of diversification and domestication of our crops.
With David, we were asking, "what happens, what will happen when these things move?" And it wasn't really question of if. In my mind, it was a question of when.
Map adapted from The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma.(1990) Angus Wright, University of Texas Press
On a separate story, I had been collaborating for about 15 years with a group of indigenous communities in the state of Oaxaca, where we had established the capacity to deal with microbes, but also the capacity to analyze DNA. For years, they had been very interested in all the rumblings about GMOs, and what the consequences could be.
I remember saying, "I think you should really be prepared to be monitoring yourself instead of waiting for somebody coming to help you, because nobody will. The corporations are not going to help you because, obviously, they have no interest in contradicting themselves, since they have been repeating this mantra that IT'S NOT GOING TO MOVE OUT, IT'S NOT GOING TO MOVE OUT, IT'S NOT GOING TO GO ANYWHERE. And they've repeated it for many years.
The academic institutions available to you in Mexico or elsewhere are not really going to be asking these questions. The government is not going to be asking these questions. So who's going to do it? It has to be you, the farmers. So why not? You have the lab capacity. Why not look into it? Why not establish this capacity so when it comes, you'll be ready?"
David had already run several workshops there on different methods in different technical capacities. And we agreed that he would go down there with the very few reagents that were necessary to do this monitoring, thinking that he would be helping to build up the human resources that are necessary. It takes years to build up a lab like that and get people thinking about it. It takes years. So, we were thinking that he would be ready for the time—5, 10, 15 years down the line—when these transgenic materials started moving into the area.
The night before the workshop, he did a mock run of the whole thing with the positive [a corn known to be a GMO variety used to test for the presence of GMO genes] that he brought from a Safeway [supermarket in the Bay Area]. He was sure that he should use the local corn, which is touted as the purest corn in the world, as his negative controls. So, he called one day in the morning, woke me up, and said, "I'm two hours away from the workshop and my negative controls are showing positive. So the land races—the criollo corn, local corn those being grown there—are showing positive results."
Now, of course, my first response was one of bafflement, but also wondering whether he had contaminated his samples with the Safeway corn, or if something was wrong with the method. He brought back samples. We reran the test in many different ways, in different labs, with all kinds of different controls. He went down in October, and by March we felt very confident that there was no question about it.
We wrote it up and submitted a paper to Nature, which is one of the two magazines of record in science. We received a predisposed response, initially. At that point I felt that it was extremely important from the policy point of view, to start talking to people who were going to be affected by this, especially governments—governmental agencies and so on—were going to be confronted by the media the moment that this broke out.
We knew it was going to be pretty scandalous. And I didn't want government officials to be caught by surprise. I wanted them to have time to consult, to think, and to make up their minds about what they wanted to do with it, instead of panicking. Because when governments panic, what they do is go to the safest place, which is usually industry. They would just run to industry and say, "Please help us. Please save us." And [industry] would come up with some kind of story.
As we started talking to them—I could make this story as long as you want—there was a leak from the government to Greenpeace, and eventually to the Internet, and into the European media. The story was covered as a front page story—amazingly, as the Afghan war was beginning to evolve—in the [French] newspaper Le Monde, [which] was carrying half of a front page dedicated to the Afghan bombing and [the other] half dedicated to the corn story. It was incredible.
And ever since, that has been rolling in the media. The East Bay Express* is one of the examples of how much public interest this story has had over the last year—it's almost exactly one year to the day. In the media, worldwide, it's really amazing, there has been radio coverage, there's a documentary in the works, there are books being written. It's really amazing. In the question is why? Why is the public so interested? And I think you know the answer.
* Chapela & Quist: Kernels of Truth - East Bay Express 29may02
You wanted me to stay with the Nature story?
I heard about your trip to Mexico to speak with the government. Who was [at the meeting] when you got there? [Referring to the GMO industry representatives present at the prearranged meeting.]
Who did you go to speak with in Mexico?
I spoke to many people. I spoke to many government officials. But, specifically, the goal keeper for the country, there is a commission on biosafety and genetically modified organisms. It turns out to have lots of contacts with the biotech industry, and actually a vested interest in the biotech industry.
I don't need to elaborate. I was given the gangster treatment basically, trying to bully us into not publishing, trying to bully us into pulling the paper back. That [drew the attention of] the media, and after a while we were invited to reconsider our research, to find out that we were wrong, and to submit another paper saying that were wrong.
When this happened, was the first paper published?
No, it hadn't been published. This all happened prepublication, which was incredibly complicated, because the paper is being peer reviewed at that point. It went through a very meticulous peer review—at least four rounds of peer review, which is relatively unusual.
The paper finally got published. The editor of Nature, Phil Campbell, had been predisposed, as I said, initially, and then something happened over the months. As the story evolved, they started getting colder and colder and colder feet. There was one reviewer who would write two-line reviews saying, "Don't publish it. This really sucks. Don't publish it."
And the reasons were...there was one technical reason at some point, she said, "These guys should have a control that is a historical control. They should find a seed that comes from the same area but pre-GMOs—before GMOs existed. We actually found something like that in the seed collections. So we submitted that. At that point, the nasty reviewer just wrote saying, "This paper is not interesting. Don't publish it."
Fortunately, that was the point where Le Monde was carrying the story on the front page. So, all I did was to just copy the PDF file and e-mail it over to Nature, and say, "Please tell me that this story is not interesting again."
[ Audience laughs ]
I'm sorry. We were wrong.
At that point, I think, there was no way... That's basically when they decided to just had to run it. So they ran the story. And on the day that the paper came out, many things happened. The day the paper came out the OECD—Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which groups together the so-called developed, or industrialized countries—was holding meetings in Raleigh, North Carolina to look at the question of transgenics, and whether we should just forget about the problem and continue with the commercialization of transgenics.
Apparently the whole meeting was designed to basically give [GMOs] a blank check and say, "It's been cleared. It's fine. We want to continue pushing for it." The paper came out right in the middle of [the OECD meeting]. We had some e-mail leakage from people who were working for the PR campaign for the industry, who were just totally amazed. They just felt that... There was an e-mail that said,
"We really need to figure out where these guys Quist and Chapela are getting their funding from because they have engaged some pretty amazing PR power. Their timing has been incredible the way they have been manipulating the media. These guys are lackeys of I don't know who. All these enviros...and so on. But they're doing it really well. We really need to pin them down."
It was brilliant. It was published exactly right in the middle of the meeting. The whole meeting of OECD had to be re-engineered. They had a late-night meeting that apparently filled the whole auditorium. People were standing of hallways to hear about it. The Mexican government representatives were pulled into this meeting to say something about it. Basically, the whole meeting flopped because of the paper.
We didn't do anything. We were just struggling to get the paper... the stupid paper published. If it was up to us, it would have been published months before, as we felt was going to be the case anyway. Lots of coincidences like that have been happening over the months. But, as we went along, it was evident that the Board at Nature was, I think, getting their arm twisted in a big way.
And poor Phil Campbell, who I consider has his heart in the right place, is a very intelligent man, and a very good person, I feel, didn't want to do it. On the one hand, he knew that [he] had a paper that was valuable in his hands. On the other hand, he was being bullied, obviously bullied by someone with a lot of power. And I don't know who that is, or who those people would be.
Up to the moment that the paper was published—the day the paper was published—there were letters already written that took into account all kinds of details about the paper. Obviously, the paper had been handled by people who were preparing a whole discreditation campaign for the paper that started on the day the paper was published.
Most of it was carried out through the Internet, which is a great way of doing it, because, of course, you can get away with anything you want on the Internet. I can say you've killed someone. And [even though] you didn't, but so what? I've said it already and thousands of millions of people have seen it.
So that's basically the [way it's] gone over months. The paper was published in November. December, January, February... by March, I feel, the pressure at Nature was so strong that [it] was pushed in to publishing two letters... Well, we were asked to recant. We were basically provided a galley proof. We were provided text that said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. We were wrong. We deserve to be flogged in the public plaza. [Signed] David Quist and Ignacio Chapela."
Of course, we responded by saying, "No way are we going to sign that!" Because by that time, the Mexican government been running independent analysis that confirmed the main statement, which was a statement of contamination. There was contamination in those places in Oaxaca. So there was no reason why we should recant.
Failing that, Nature went ahead and published two letters that questioned the technical value of the paper. And I could talk about that also for a long time. But, importantly with it, came a very small, brief note from the editor, Phil Campbell, saying... I should have memorized his words, but I don't have them in my head... saying, basically, "This paper was published but we really shouldn't have because now after the event we have acquired enough information to make us doubt that there was a wise decision to publish it back then."
And it's as confusing as my wording is.
I've had many people who are much better with language than I am from the English and Rhetoric Departments look at the actual construction of the phrases, and it's impossible to make sense of it. What it is, in my view, it's just fence-sitting by poor Phil Campbell, who is really trying to come clean on both sides, which is, of course, impossible. That created [even] more of a scandal.
[ Audience laughs ]
In 1997, I was invited by the United Nations to go and discuss, again, about the same subject of the environmental impact of transgenic crops in Leon. And behind the scenes, on the same panel, we were meeting with a PR representative for Monsanto. And you know, very frankly, I just said, "What are you guys doing? Back in '97, when this whole campaign against farmers was beginning, when they were just very nastily going against labeling, there were just not conceding a single anything." I said, "What are you guys doing?"
You know, I've worked for the industry. I used to work for Sandoz, which became Novartis afterwards. And I can understand a lot of the thinking happening behind the scenes. So I said, "What are you guys doing? You're really hurting yourselves. You should at least concede on something. You know, labeling, or something. Instead of just painting yourselves as...as...[being] bad that people are going to shoot you."
These PR people said, "You know, that's exactly the message that we continued to give Monsanto, the management. But they are just so arrogant that they just don't listen to us. We are working for them. We are the company. And they just don't listen. They're just so secure in their feeling that they have governments and their pockets, that they have the whole game laid out for them, that they're just not willing to consider anything."
Basically, the same thing was happening for us where there was this incredible arrogance and belief that just because Nature published something, a little note that said, "Well, we published it, but maybe we shouldn't have, but maybe we should," that that was going to be enough to just get people not to pay attention to it. Of course, it worked the other way around. And that just drew more and more attention to it. The scandal continued.
We also have Ken Worthy here, who, together with a whole bunch of other people at Berkeley, Jason and other people, drafted letters. Apparently, of flood letters coming into Nature complaining about, not only about the fact that they were just going after a legitimate paper, but mostly about the proceedings. This is not something that you do in science. If you're going to publish a paper after your peers have reviewed. And you feel that it's worth to go in print, it goes and print. And then it's open for...it's up for grabs. People are perfectly justified in coming after it and showing that it was wrong, or showing that it was mistaken in its interpretations, or whatever. That's a perfectly common occurrence in science. The weird thing was that Nature would see it fit to come out—and some people say totally unprecedented in the history of science, I don't know—to come out and kind of withdraw a paper on their own, which is not a withdrawal.
With apparently enormous pressure now on the other side of Phil Campbell, he seemed to be convinced that he had to publish something. So he published a letter from the people at Berkeley as well as a letter written by people from about four different universities from across the country complaining about Nature. And then he publishes yet another little note, saying, "This paper was not withdrawn by either the authors or Nature."
[ Audience laughs ]
Let's just keep going."
It's really difficult to know where that whole thing stands from the point of view of whether you'd decide that the paper has been withdrawn or not withdrawn, or whatever. The reality is that the statement of contamination in Mexico, which is a very important statement, and to me, again—one sampler from that massive manipulation that we' re doing in the environment went totally unaccountable and totally without ways of finding out what we're doing—that is confirmed now. It has been confirmed by study after study after study, using different methods, using different approaches, different labs, and so on.
So, there is no question about it. The question is what is going to happen? With the policy? Are we going to be able to to do anything about it? The question is out there. Now what is the response that we get get? And so far, the response has been very contradictory. You have on the one hand, a whole group of people, many people who are really outraged, especially because of the process. Because we had been promised that this would not happen for years and years and years. And now it's happening. So it may not be a surprise for many of you. But on the other hand, you have all the other people who just shrugged their shoulders and say, "So what? Let's just keep going."
I'll stop there and field some questions or following discussion with you, where you want to take it.
Since you've been working closely with the communities in Oaxaca, to you know what the [indiscernible name] ... I know Fox isn't really concerned about this whole business, but...[indiscernible] Are they doing something? Or is there anything that can be done?
There is a lot going on. We could also talk for another hour about that, but there is Congressional as well as Senate action going on. Congress and the Senate in Mexico have been pretty strongly protectionist in the sense of pushing to stop the flow of transgenic maize and into Mexico through different channels. There was a change of the criminal code, making it a crime to possess, transport, sell, buy, move, whatever. Any transgenic organism affects, or might affect the environment, which is an incredibly blanket statement about, "let's just not have transgenics in the country. Not in the lab. Not anywhere," which, is being defeated now because many scientists are complaining about it.
There are proposals for new legislation stopping the importation of [GMO] corn until it is either killed by grinding or or in any other way, or segregated and labeled as GMO-free. However, at the same time, you have the economy ministry passing, recently, an authorization to import more corn from the U.S., even though it's not segregated were labeled. The attitude is very schizophrenic.
For the general public, we might be talking Mexican politics here, but it's really important to recognize that what's happening there is that the whole future of the developing world, in this book regards, is being played out, or was being played out over the last year in Mexico. So, whatever happens in local politics in Mexico, I think is mirroring out to what is now evolving in Africa, what will happen in Southeast Asia, in South Asia, and so on. So, it's really important.
Schizophrenic reactions. Schizophrenic response.
On the one hand, you have environment saying, "Oh, we care. And we're do all these studies, and so on," and coming up and saying, "yes, it's there. Now, it's someone else's business, someone else's responsibility to say what to do with it." And then the rest of the executive branch says, "We don't care." You know, we just let through, which is economy and agriculture. The economy and agriculture are basically run by people who have very strong ties to the biotech industry—agbiotech industry—were even have the biotech industry in their hands. The largest noncommodity seed company in the world that is very vested, or was very vested in GMOs, is owned by a Mexican who is very good friends with President Fox, and is actually his adviser.
It's not surprising that...[same person asks what his name is] Romo, Alfonso Romo.
So it's not surprising that the president, who should be making this decision—there is total contradiction in the executive branch at the level of ministries—so you would expect that the president would be making those decisions. And the president has not made any statements. The BBC got him to say... apparently, they got him in the middle of another interview—they're interviewing him on something else—and they said, "What you think about the contamination of the corn in Mexico?" And he said, "Oh, it is a problem that we are looking into, and poverty is a very serious problem for Mexico, and we're doing a lot about poverty in Mexico," and something like that. And that's all he said.
We don't know how it's going to be resolved. It's an incredibly difficult thing to do. If you think of NAFTA, if you think of the dependency of Mexico and many other developing countries on trade with U.S., it's an incredibly difficult thing to do for the government to take any other stance than saying, "OK. We really hate it, but were letting it come in any way."
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...the Teotihuacán culture, and what they did was, they planted crops—this was about ten years ago—using modern technology and modern seed—potatoes I think. And they planted crops with the traditional plant food, using the Teotihuacán planting technology. And the crop yield was ten times higher with the ancient technology. In reality, if you look at natural foods, they aren't much more nutritious than this engineered stuff.
So, how is this benefiting poor people, or feeding them, when it's actually training resources and not really feeding them?
I don't think there's any question about it, that there are many different alternatives. In going into this avenue, that we decided to go into as a country, or as a hemisphere, in the '70s and '80s, we just decided not to look at field other alternatives. But, I think you're right, whenever people look, people find that, yes, there are much better ways of doing it. And there are ways in which you can increase productivity. I always remind myself of of this rice study* where the cultivation of rice—this is a very large, very large-scale, probably one of the largest agricultural studies ever done. It was done in China, incorporation with Oregon State, Oregon University, I forget, with many thousands of farmers.
* Genetic Diversity and Disease Control in Rice Nature 406, 718 - 722 17aug00
And the question was, the experiment was, what is the difference between planting one single variety of rice vs. two varieties, nothing else. Or industrial agriculture, high input, mechanized, everything else. The only difference is one variety/two varieties. They had incredible results, incredible results after the first year. They already have some situations where they could get an increasing yield of 89 percent, and a reduction in fungicide use, which is the main pesticide input into this agricultural system, down to zero. There were not applying any fungicide anymore.
I'm not saying that is always going to be the case. What I'm saying is that we have forgotten, we just decided not to look at the alternatives. In any analysis of cost/benefit we really should have that the standard, as the gold standard, the best possible alternatives. Not what we're doing right now, which is often what is used as the standard. We should know about the best standard and have that as the point of reference. And we should try to improve on that standard, and keep that as a reference. And say, "What are the alternatives?" Before saying, either this or that, which is industrial agriculture or biotech agriculture. Why do I have these two options when I know there are 20 others around that I decided not to look at?
You mentioned Africa. How would like to know what's occurring there are currently. And the second question is, are we possibly, as human beings affected by this too through the similarity of the genetic building blocks?
Those are to very big questions.
The question on Africa, I should just say I'm not as informed as I could be or as a should be, mostly because the developments in Africa are very recent. The last few months really is when... it's very clear to me that he is a strategy of industry has release shifted from the very loudly promoting and trying to push PR convincing countries like Mexico, or Columbia, or other countries like that, and get shot in the foot every time. They opened their mouth and they get shot again, again, and again. I think their strategy has changed to go under, keep quiet, and go to place where people really don't have the technical capacity, are really don't have the social and technical framework to deal with it. And that is, unfortunately, many places in Africa.
They have pushed very strongly, in the last few months—you've seen it in the newspapers—how they have pushed several countries and to the very awkward position saying no to the importation of GMOs, even though this is aid food that is coming to them when they have populations of people who are actually starving. It's a great PR, totally shameless I think, incredibly shameless*, but very good, very strong PR campaign that they have shifted into.
* The Fake Parade JONATHAN MATTHEWS / Freezerbox 3dec02
I see the whole developments in Africa, again, as a very rhetorical, very PR-based move by the industry. Surprisingly, as we saw during the Johannesburg meetings, and we continue to see over these months, these last few months and weeks, there were confronted again by people who might not totally at the speed with the latest in the technology, but they've been confronted by governments as well as populations of people who just keep saying, "no." The just keep kicking and screaming as their pushed into it. That includes central governments as well as individual researchers.
I have been receiving lots of requests for information and advice from individual researchers, people in the universities, as well as government officials or saying, "We don't really know much about it, but we really want to hear from you guys because you obviously have been confronted with this before." And now, I don't know why we are being flooded with it.
Do you want an answer to your other question?
The question was, how could we see these manipulations—transgenic manipulations of DNA—in other species come back to humans? Could we, and how?
I see two ways.
One, which is the biological route, which is totally speculative but not implausible and not unlikely, is a process called horizontal gene transfer. We know that are we are connected with the rest of DNA-based, carbon-based life over evolutionary time. When Hegel* and Darwin**, and those people were thinking of evolution, they use to think of evolution as has a continuously expanding trade, with branches always diverging away from each other. You have pure lines that are always getting purer and purer, and kind of diverging away from... DNA work—this molecular biology knowledge—has helped us realize that this is not really the case, the way evolution happens. There is a lot of what's called reticulation, where you have feedback, movement of genetic material from one of these branches to the other. So what we have, really, is a net of life, of interconnected life.
The rate of movement is very low, especially for organisms like ourselves, that are really good at telling self from nonself. And really good at pushing out bacteria that come into your body, and so on. Some of you might be surprised that everyone of your cells is made not of a cell that you can call pure Arian, or whatever your race might be. But, it's actually made of your cells, or the cells of your ancestors plus bacteria that have been incorporated into it through evolutionary times, called your mitochondria. Those mitochondria really evolved from, or are the descendants of a totally different evolutionary lineage than the other part of your ancestors. They met at some point.
There are routes through which we should expect, over evolutionary time, to see the interconnectedness of life operates like that. I think there are much better, much easier ways of thinking about this question, and that is how it is we are using the technology to transform humans. And I know tonight, we been talking a lot about agbiotech, and a lot of public attention goes to agbiotech, and biotech in the environment, but the technology itself denies the difference between humans in nonhumans. That's the whole point of the technology.
There are incredible advances out there that are pointing to, or aiming at transforming the human genome by incorporating either pieces from other humans, but also pieces from other organisms, or producing pigs that will carry proteins—human proteins, or human genes—and express that. So, we are trying, we are really working at erasing the difference between species in the lab. We're pushing the envelope. We're continuously pushing the envelope, and I totally expect—I mean, where actually doing it already—that we're going to see that route, the natural evolution route, but there's also the human-induced route of exchange of DNA between species. It will happen.
Is there anything going on in United States legislation about genetic drift, specifically having to do with organic food? Because it seems like their M. O. his kind of no GMOs, so if... I've heard that even organic foods are...
I think that the legislation point to make, simply is that the policy is not to look. And it continues to be. You're not supposed to talk about it. You're not supposed to distinguish it. And Simon is probably going to give us an update on where legislation is right now.
With regards to the FDA, there now going after the organic companies that are labeling their foods GMO-free. So they basically ignored all the hundreds of thousands of comments from people who want labels, and they're saying that the organic food companies are labeling them as not having genetically modified ingredients could be misrepresenting that and so there now going after them saying that they don't have the right to put those labels on there.
That was Simon Harris, the West Coast organizer for the Organic Consumers Association. He has been working very hard on the fundraising event for Percy Schmeiser on this Thursday at the Greenpeace office.
Dr. James Diamond, the incoming chair of the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee:
The Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee has been talking to Sen. Harkin, who said that he would hold hearings after the election. So there might be some action.
Dr. James Diamond:
No, on genetic contaminations. Once it comes about, I'll try to push it as much as we can.
So, it's going to be driven by Sierra Club?
Dr. James Diamond:
It's not driven by Sierra Club, it's as much noise is we can make.
The California legislature, in 2001 had hearings about this. They were run by Tom Hayden. And Tom said, "Don't expect anything to change in the legislature." He said something incredible like... We were talking about the University, and about it was involving itself with industry too far, and he said, "This house, referring to the Senate, is as rotten as your University. So don't expect this house to pass anything on this now. But, at least we are going to leave a market. We are going to leave a market on the wall as we're dragged out of this room—it was in incredible metaphorical thing—as we're dragged out of this room, were going to leave a mark that something happened here. We cannot just go without..."
Dennis Kucinich, the Democrat from Ohio, is working on food labeling for GM food. I don't know where it is now.
Dr. James Diamond:
It's introduced every year.
But it's killed in the house. If I was a politician I would try that and with a very strong PR campaign. It's just such a winner. Everybody wants labeling except the people in power right now. Who cares about the FDA? If you have a good PR campaign and you are strong politician, you could get away with it.
[Recording unclear. Unable to understand.]
I find it sad that we should be thinking that labeling is a great accomplishment here. It just gives you are the measure of how low our standards of democratic treatment of technology have dropped. Because what's wrong with going for saying no? What's wrong for saying no to environmental releases? That should be among the cards for any democracy, I believe. The fact that we are finding it so hard to even talk about labeling his kind of discouraging. And you're right, labeling cannot be the goal, cannot be the final step of anything because it's just so discriminatory in many ways, especially when you think of those people you're talking about, but also about international relationships. But about the countries that just get dumped—all the stuff that the Europeans in the Japanese don't want to buy?
I done some study of genetically engineered foods, and I have about five things that I read and five different sources. But I only want to address one thing, and that is, I spent about an hour and a half at Albertson's going through the baby foods, and except for one company, the Gerber, the Heinz, the infant milk, they'll have soybeans as one of the main things. And there's another thing. The San Francisco Chronicle had an article on children who have autism. That they diagnosed, supposedly, 9 cases everyday of these young children, and I beginning to wonder what is the factor?
That's a big tragedy.
Dr. James Diamond:
Baby food companies aren't buying GE ingredients.
How do you know?
Dr. James Diamond:
Well, I've heard that. I don't have absolute guarantees.
The ones I have seen, it was four months ago that I did this, I didn't see it. I've been reading very carefully. I didn't see anything like that.
I do think they actually label the stuff.
You think they would. They should.
Their policy, many of them, their policy is to do that. You can say, well, maybe they're not doing that because they don't want to alarm people. The other point is, maybe they're not doing it because they don't want to... If they need a product that a certain time and they can't get an organic or non GMO, then they can still use it. It's not labeled, therefore they can still use it. It's not labeled, therefore they are not liable for anything.
Dr. James Diamond:
Nobody can guarantee 100 percent, which makes it a little bit difficult to label. I understand they're trying very hard to... I'm a pediatrician. I hear this through pediatric sources.
He is also the incoming chair of the Sierra Club's national Genetic Engineering Committee.
The Sierra Club has been really leading in this.
I think the labeling... a question next, but, the point about labeling, while it's not going to cure anything, it will bring attention to it. And for a lot of people—mainline consumers—they only can approach this is through labeling. That's all they can deal with. That's it. Period. they can deal with the harm or the politics, or anything but "I have a choice." That's it. So, that's all little deal with.
A question from this woman right here.
Is it safe to assume, if you have found a number of genetically modified strains in Oaxaca, that all of the corn produced here or in Europe has traces as well? What can you do about it?
It's safe to assume that all corn in the world is contaminated, what can we do?
If you go to the place where they were trying to preserve it, and you find it is contaminated...
Well, nobody was really, explicitly, trying to preserve it. In fact, it was being... the whole infrastructure—the human infrastructure and the ecological infrastructure—is being eroded all the time. So, there's no explicit effort to preserve that. We are hoping that this is really raising attention among farmers, as well as governments and so on. That and explicit effort is made, I don't think anybody was doing that.
The East Bay Express article sort of implied that there was a concerted effort to actually preserve the integrity. At least that's the way I understood the article.
Farmers there are working for themselves. There is no... There are farmers organizations that are really good at sea saving, and so on. But the thinking is not that, they're not making an altruistic movement for the world. They're doing it, but they're not doing it consciously. In part of the whole thing is to close the loop. There is a very clear vicious circle that connects my tax dollars with subsidization and killing of the American farmers so that we can dump underpriced commodity grain onto the ships in the Atlantic that go around, go to Mexico, get fed into Mexico where farmers [are told], "If you want to produce your own seed in these places in Oaxaca, you have to subsidize it out of your pocket at the tune of about 30 percent of the cost. And that pushes you out of the land. And since you're to California, to either clean my bathroom or to do agricultural work. Totally contradictory, totally crazy thing. You're pushing them out so they can come out and do agricultural work here.
It's sort of like a precursor of a different world where, obviously NAFTA will never have the consequences that the state of [?] have. There's nothing that... what NAFTA says it wants to do to equalize salaries and eradicate poverty obviously doesn't work. Because this is the vicious circle that is going on. Could we assume that the strains of corn are being contaminated around here? What you guys were doing about testing it, is that something that can be done small organic farmers here in California?
Yes. They commit an easily, relatively easily with $10,000 you can do a farm association lab that will people to do this. You need a big network. You need to have places to confirm the results, to have legitimations, certification, all kinds of balances and checks for the whole thing. But it's doable. I think it is a fair assumption to say that maize in North America will have different degrees of contamination. I'm really interested in doing that—the geographical distribution over North America.
I don't know about Africa, but it's possible that Africa's also very contaminated. Asia will be a little less because they are more reliant upon the diversity centers. I think in places like India, because there is a very good maize diversity center there, is probably an interesting place to look into. But in general, I think it's not a bad assumption to say this is happening all of the place.
Then what to do, I think something really important to keep in mind, the were told that, "The genie's out of the bottle, stop complaining and swallow it." There's any number of genie's in any number of bottles. In those bottles are pretty well stoppered. So the fact that this happened, I think, should be a cautionary tale for what's to come. And what is coming is it, and I'm sorry to be scandalous, because it is scandalous, what's coming is spermaticidal corn—corn that is designed to produce a compound that will render human male sperm unviable. What's coming is vaccines in your food. What's coming is pharmaceuticals in your food, and so on.
This should be a cautionary tale and we should be glad that we were lucky this time around that it's not really so bad. But we should really the thinking that the genie is to come are so much more important than this one genie. And we should never buy that idea that the genie's out of the bottle, forget about it now, eat it.
Crop trials for pharmaceuticals is already going on here in California.
Is happening. It's probably happening in Mexico. One other thing that's interesting about Mexico, Mexico is that the same time the place where we want to keep that genetic diversity in place. And yet, is also the place where were doing the most experimentation. All the experimentation for corn in the U.S. is first carried out in Mexico. It's a total crazy, again, and very contradictory policy.
The same thing is happening with the indigenous people in, I think it's in Michigan*. Winona LaDuke spoke recently at the Black Oak Bookstore [in Berkeley], and choose telling about her project with saving the wild rice, and about the land grant universities that are doing exactly the opposite—they're trying to make that natural wild crop into something that they can make some money out of. Which means standardizing it, and putting in into large plots of land. And patenting it, and saying its theirs.
The natural wealth of poor people all around the world is just that, their biodiversity. And we don't see that [biodiversity] is ours as well. Gold is garbage. The wealth that we have is biodiversity. And the more variations we have, the better we are. And what commercial agriculture is doing is narrowing down, making one apple, one potato. This is dangerous. This is very dangerous.
There was a question back here.
Oh, I wanted to comment on what you said about us being consumers. [Recording and its abruptly here]
For those products that are being developed right now Michael Pollan has a great, Michael Pollan the writer, has a great way of referring to them, and he calls them rhetorical technologies. A lot of what's happening in the industry right now is totally reactive to the big, big falling on your face that the first generation, the second generation products had. But we are discussing tonight, and what Percy's being persecuted for, is really already passed. And it was a big failure.
From the point of view of industry, just look at the stocks of these companies can tell me what they're doing. Even beyond the the falling stock prices for all the other companies, their really doing badly. The response is rhetorical. And this one is about doing something—they couldn't increase yields, they couldn't reduce chemicals use, they couldn't do anything better than that. Now let's try and onion something that we can put up a poster child—literally a poster child who was saved from polio by eating his bananas.
That's what it is. And it's hard to distinguish between the PR part and the real problem-driven technological development.
They don't want us to populate anymore. [Cannot hear the rest of comment because of background noise]
I think on that note may we should...
Just one note please. There's a French scientist that this study in Québec on the St. Lawrence River that found in the sludge of the river, a buildup of Bt toxin from the runoff of the corn fields. So it's building up, it's not going away, it doesn't disappear, it mixes with everything... and it's time to say something folks. Real loud. This is not a conspiracy. This is our government doing it to us—the FDA, the USDA, the EPA. They're all the same. They are Monsanto. They go in and out, in and out of Monsanto to the government.
I would like to thank you all for being here.